Jeremiah Denton, US POW held in Vietnam who became senator after TV interview fame

US prisoner held in Vietnam became senator after TV interview fame

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 6:44am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 7:24am

Jeremiah Denton
1924 - 2014

Jeremiah Denton, a former US senator who was held as a prisoner of war by North Vietnam for more than seven years and revealed his treatment by blinking the word "torture" in Morse code during a televised interview, died on Friday aged 89.

Denton was most famous for spending seven years and seven months as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down during a bombing mission from the aircraft carrier USS Independence in 1965. Imprisoned in brutal conditions in and around Hanoi, Denton encouraged fellow American prisoners to resist their North Vietnamese captors.

American POWs were sometimes paraded in propaganda films and in 1966, the captive Denton was interviewed for such a film apparently in the hope that he would denounce the US war policy.

"Well, I don't know what is happening," he told his interviewer. "But, whatever the position of my government is, I support it fully. And whatever the position of my government is, I believe in it - yes, sir. I'm a member of that government and it is my job to support it. And I will as long as I live."

During the interview, he pretended to have light sensitivity that caused him to blink his eyes. What he was actually doing was blinking in Morse code to spell out "t-o-r-t-u-r-e."

Denton said later his torture increased after the interview was aired. He spent four years in solitary confinement, including two years in a cell the size of a refrigerator. He was 41 when he was captured and 48 when released.

The tape was widely seen, and US intelligence experts had picked up the Morse code message. But Denton theorised later that his captors likely figured it out only after he was awarded the Navy Cross for the blinks in 1974.

He said his captors never brought him out for another interview. But with the war's end drawing closer, he was released in February 1973.

Denton later became the first Republican from Alabama elected to the US Senate, but the iron will that allowed him to persevere in captivity gave rise to criticism he was too rigid a politician.

After his election defeat in 1986, Denton founded the Coalition for Decency and lectured about family causes. He also launched a humanitarian outreach programme through his National Forum Foundation.

Reuters, Associated Press